Students in Daniel Buckmaster's classroom don't bury their noses in books. Most days, they don't even need textbooks.
With dimmed lights, sixth-grade science students at Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School laugh their way through a student-produced video about electricity. The graphics have a distinct videogame feel, and the dialogue is rife with middle school humor. Many laughs — Buckmaster laughs loudest — and a few minutes of note-taking later, the real work is about to begin. Today's assignment: the Energizer Bunny.
The science experiment is a staple.
Demonstrate electricity with a wire, a battery and a small light bulb. But that's not enough in Buckmaster's class. Students have to first draw a picture of how to light up the bulb in not just one way but five.
The work is noisy, with shouts of “We have power!” and “Give us a hint!” Buckmaster gives students a second battery. The result is brighter bulbs. Before long, students are performing skits and even a rap:
Hi, I'm an electron from a battery
Coming through a wire
Make a spark and light the bulb on fire
You can watch TV
The thing is that you can see me
Cheers and laughter are everywhere in Buckmaster's classroom, especially as he starts clapping his hands and singing “This Little Light of Mine.” Students are having fun, thanks in no small part to a teacher who describes himself as the biggest sixth-grader in the room. But it's when the teacher asks for questions it becomes most clear this is no regular middle school science classroom. “If energy can't be created, how can it be here in the first place?” asks one girl. “And if it can't be created, then can it be destroyed?”
This is the kind of thinking that abounds in Buckmaster's classroom, where Buckmaster tells students: “Great scientists are great at asking great questions.”
As students study the flow of electrons from the negative end of the battery to the positive, it's easy to see Buckmaster take his students on an educational journey. They enter his classroom with little experience in science. He's focused on teaching them to think like scientists. Learning how to do that was Buckmaster's own journey of sorts from the negative to the positive.
In his first year of teaching, Buckmaster, now 30, barely made it to Christmas break in a job he thought would be his life's work. “My classroom was not having the worst discipline problems in the building, so my principal left me alone and told me I was doing a good job,” he said. “I knew better. I was doing a lot of teaching, but there was almost no learning.”
For years now, Buckmaster had wanted to be Brent Peck, his high school biology teacher who inspired him to pursue education. “Mr. Peck was short, wore a white beard and always smelled like coffee,” Buckmaster said. “He made me feel smart and challenged me. He encouraged me to make the most of my future.”
Making lessons fun
Buckmaster started working with an instructional facilitator — a
“After that first class, I wanted to cry I was so happy. It took me five minutes to teach them something I had been trying to get them to learn for weeks, and they were having fun doing it,” he said.
Over the next two years, he worked to make sure students were having fun as he taught them to think like scientists.
Buckmaster focuses his instruction not on textbooks but on inquiry-based learning. Every class is a chance for students to experiment, question and test what they think they know.
They know science. But they also know Buckmaster is like no teacher they've ever had.
“He is a really good teacher,” Deonte Curry said. “He doesn't just make us read in a book. He uses demonstrations.”
Parents can go online to watch the Web-based video series and see what their students are learning. Buckmaster also started an engineering fair that draws hundreds of student entries. He brings in botanists, biologists and others to help in the important work of teaching science. He's still learning himself, having just attained National Board certification in his constant quest to become the best possible teacher for his students.
The students are pretty sure he's already arrived. “Mr. B., he just always makes sure we can do it,” Jesica Trevizo said. “Not every teacher is that way, but he is. He cares a lot.”
Christy Watson is public and media relations director for the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools.